I am reading Jacob Milgrom’s Continental Commentary volume on Leviticus.
Leviticus 19 is the heart of H, the Holiness Code. It shows how the priests have been stung by the critique of the eighth century prophets, especially Isaiah. Thus H reveals a new ethic of holiness and chapter 19 is a kind of new Decalogue to express it. Leviticus 19 either quotes or refers to all ten commandments.
The holiness of God is essential to Isaiah. In his vision of call in Isaiah 6 the Seraphs cry out “holy, holy, holy” is the Lord. The holiness of God is what Isaiah contrasts to the uncleanness of himself and the people. So Leviticus 19 asserts that as God is holy, so his people must be holy (see also Jesus according to Matthew 5:48). Isaiah’s kind of holiness was ethical rather than ritual. The priests who composed H accepted this definition of holiness. But they expand upon Isaiah by offering a specific program to achieve it. And, in contrast to Isaiah, they are optimistic about Israel’s ability to repent and achieve holiness.
In all of this H does not abandon the priestly concern about ritual holiness. The holiness of Sabbath observance, avoiding dead things, and using cleansing ceremonies stands alongside an emphasis on taking care of the disadvantaged and being fair in business dealings. The two kinds of holiness go together. Milgrom thinks that chapter 19 opens with the Sabbath commandment and the commandment to respect parents (the forth and fifth commandments of Moses’ ten) in order to put a ritual commandment next to an ethical one and to show that the two are both part of holiness.
Christians will remember that Jesus quoted part of Leviticus 19:18, “you must love your neighbor as yourself.” See Mark 12:31. The historical Jesus had more to say about this, I am sure. But, did Mark take the verse from Leviticus out of context? In Leviticus love is not an emotion. According to Milgrom, it always involves specific action. In 19:18 it is set over against nursing a grudge or desiring revenge. In this context, loving your neighbor as yourself is the equivalent of forgiveness.
Actually, Jesus probably understood the context of Leviticus 19:18 well. Forgiveness was a major teaching. And Jesus seems to say we should forgive others because God forgives us. Be holy as God is holy–just as Leviticus 19 stresses.
The “as yourself” part of this command could possibly mean three different things. First, maybe it means love your neighbor who is [a person] like yourself. Second, maybe it means love your neighbor just as you love [good things for] yourself. Third, maybe it means love your neighbor so as not to do anything to him you wouldn’t want done to yourself. Milgrom opts for the second meaning. So do I. But Rabbi Hillel, and quite possibly Jesus, held to the third.
Over against modern and romantic ideas of love, Milgrom’s thoughts about what Leviticus means by love are important. It is not just a feeling. He points out that the word for love was used in international treaties in the ancient Near East. When one state became vassal of another, it was supposed to “love” its sovereign. This meant deeds. We can be sure it did not mean emotional love.
A couple notes on individual passages:
–The second part of 19:16 comes to us with obscure translations that hide its centrality to Jewish ethics. The KJV says, “Neither shalt thou stand against the blood of thy neighbor.” Actually it probably means that you shall not stand idly by when your neighbor’s life is threatened. This is one of those specific things that love means. Think of Moses continually standing up for the threatened in the stories of Exodus 2. Think of Jesus’ story about the Good Samaritan. The rabbis rule was that you should always intervene if it would do any good. But you did not have to if it would likely cause your own death.
–I have a relative who brings up the mention of tattoos in verse 28 to criticize another relative who has one. She never mentions verse 27 to me (I shave my head). The commands about hair cuts and cutting yourself are commands against mourning rites (see Jeremiah 16:6) that bring death into the midst of life. That was like touching a corpse in priestly understanding. It was taboo.
But we find nothing that attests the use of tattoos as mourning rites. Instead, Milgrom suggests that tattoos were a mark of slavery like the ear-piercing of Exodus 21:6. H allowed resident aliens to be slaves (25:44-46). So H probably allowed tattoos for them. For Israelites, the children of slaves in Egypt, tattoos were inappropriate. This was part of a trajectory toward the ultimate abolition of slavery.
Milgrom does not mention it, but I thought of the concentration camp tattoos borne by much of a generation of European Jews.